International Bestselling Fantasy Author Brian Rathbone is a character in his own right. From penning novels to tweeting dragon jokes of “questionable quality”, he exudes an unforgettable personality that bleeds into his characters. Yet his ability to weave relatable and enticing stories isn’t just the product of raw talent. There is a method to his madness, which he shares with Elli in this interview on character development.
Elli: How would you define a well-developed character?
Brian: Characters readers understand, connect with, or perhaps even loathe possess traits of well-developed characters. There are characters from books I read 25 years ago that I can still see in my mind. I can hear their voices and even predict what they might do in a given situation. Those characters become a part of us, which is among the most mystical parts of the reader/writer relationship.
E: Which comes first when you’re writing a new book: the character or the plot?
B: I’ve had it happen both ways. When creating my fantasy series, I had years to contemplate the global story arc for a more than fifteen-book saga. The main character, Catrin, formed after the global construct of a 150-year comet storm.
More recently, I’ve had a character demanding I write his story. He’s dogged, persistent, insistent, and more than a little obnoxious in his unwillingness to quit. In his case, the plot came second.
E: How do you go about creating unique and well-developed characters from scratch?
B: Some characters pop into my mind nearly fully formed. Others are crafted over time. What motivates them, I ask. What is their pain; their joy; their reason for being? What scars do their bear, and how do those experiences shade the way the character reacts to situations? Also, how do I convey all this to the reader in a way that enhances the story? It’s a challenge that permeates the writing process.
E: What are some common mistakes new writers should avoid when creating their first character?
B: Making your character unique can be a daunting challenge. If a character looks and acts and sounds like a character from a popular franchise, I suggest rethinking them. As a fantasy writer, I’ve also seen characters imbued with too much power. It’s something I struggle with in my own books. Sometimes the hero’s greatest strength is their weakness. I will also note that if you can’t pronounce your characters’ names, your voice artists (or anyone else) won’t be able to either.
E: Tell us about your favorite character of all time, whether he or she is from your own books or an author you admire. What is it about that character you find so appealing?
B: Tasslehoff Burrfoot from the Dragonlance series is perhaps the most memorable character from my reading history. He is flawed and yet endearing. He means well, even if your belongings keep finding their way into his pouches. He is fiercely loyal and willing to fight for his friends despite his diminutive stature. I am happy to carry him with me for the rest of my days.
Has anyone seen my keys?
E: What do you think is absolutely essential when creating a compelling protagonist?
B: Relatability. If the reader can’t relate to the protagonist, it will be far more difficult for them to immerse themselves in the story. When the reader leaves this world and enters the one you’ve written and they ride along with the protagonist, seeing the world through their eyes: Magic.
E: Does every enticing character need a backstory?
B: No. But they might all *deserve* a back story. Onin of the Old Guard and Mother Gwendolin were two of my characters who deserved to have their backstories fleshed out. I co-wrote these stories with Jack McCarthy and Morgen Rich respectively, and they created entirely new parts of my world. Jack McCarthy, for example, created Sparrowport, which became the setting for Dragon Airways.
E: Your character Emmet from Dragon Airways is an intriguing young boy with special needs. Was it challenging at all to flesh out a character whose ability to communicate was limited?
B: I love Emmet. His story was so much fun to write. The fact that he is a child made it easier. I struggled when writing about Prios in his adult life because of his inability to speak. Emmet somehow found a way to communicate with and confound those around him. I was mindful of his strengths as well as his limitations, and he proved too clever for his own good.
E: What are your thoughts on villains? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors on creating a good antagonist?
B: Relatability can also be a good trait for villains. I prefer to understand why the antagonist acts the way they do. While some characters may simply be evil for the sake of being evil, I really enjoyed taking the reader on a journey when creating Allette Kilbor, for example, who transformed into a villain. Sometimes not knowing who to root for can be a good thing.
E: As you write fantasy, do you find developing your setting with various cultures, spiritual beliefs, dialects, etc. helps give your characters an identity?
B: This is a can of beautiful worms. World building can be a great part of developing characters and plot, but it can also get out of hand. Finding the balance is among my greatest challenges. A story with too much complexity can become boring and confusing, but a story with too little development can fall flat. My advice is to build what the story requires and a little more, and if you find yourself being pulled down by the process, just write for a while and see what happens.
Sometimes the story builds the world.